2000, Music

Ken Burns Jazz (2000) by Fletcher Henderson

This is a decent one-disc compilation of Fletcher Henderson’s big bands, which are more notable for the featured performers than for anything Henderson did (with an exception or two). Like all single disc compilations of a productive artist, it doesn’t give us the greatest picture of his work. But what it does function as is an interesting little introduction to the changes that large jazz ensembles went through between the early ’20s and 1940. And that’s pretty cool to hear with a band led by the same guy. That’s probably the main reason for picking this up over the separate more complete collections of his music that exist out there.

You already know how I feel about the miniseries. But what about this music?

“Teapot Dome Blues” is pleasant big band “dixieland” (or “trad” if you prefer) jazz. It lacks any of the awesome energy and power of Armstrong’s contemporaneous music. But this is still pretty early in jazz – Henderson may have had one of the first big bands after all – and it’s cool to hear the emerging style. (Due to limits in recording technology the track is virtually drumless and the percussion is provided by a banjo and the odd cymbal crash, which is typical of all these 1924 recordings here.) The solos are all about what you would expect from this vintage.

“Shanghai Shuffle” is one of those vaguely Eastern things that now sound not at all Eastern. (That’s a clarinet trying to sound like, I don’t know, maybe a piri or something.) Louis is on this one though I can’t tell myself. It has more energy than the first track.

Henderson wasn’t the first to do “Copenhagen” but this one has a great Armstrong solo that I’m sure elevates it above the original. The break is nuts too.

“Sugar Foot Stomp” is a King Oliver tune (I believe) which is notable for being jumpier (drums!) than most of what came before it by this band. Armstrong is excellent again. That might be him yelling too.

“The Chant” has a bonkers organ part on it. An organ! AN ORGAN!!! Okay, sorry, that just wasn’t very common in 1926. The booklet screwed up and has the organ credit on the 8th track. Oops.

“Hot Mustard” is a bouncy track with a tuba fill, which is cool. You can hear the writing getting more and more sophisticated for backing the solos. This has some of the great swooning of earlier dixieland too. Also, Henderson plays a rare piano solo.

“Sensation” starts as a ballad, but it’s a trick! That must have gone over well live. The rest of it is less interesting but the backing parts are sounding more and more like conventional big band.

“Livery Stable Blues” is one of the oldest jazz songs there is. I still haven’t managed to hear the original yet so I have no idea how this compares to it – beyond the size of the band being something like 2.5 times the size. The song certainly sounds relatively primitive compared to other tracks here.

“My Pretty Girl” has one of the most overly rhythmic openings of any of Henderson’s work from this period. It’s the first song on this compilation with a vocalist. The main melody is played straight up while people do crazy dixieland-type things in the background. The song gets more sophisticated after the vocal.

“Hot and Anxious” is rather sedate comparatively, but features a classic muted solo (where it sounds like the cornet is singing), also there’s a part of this that really sounds like an early “In the Mood” – I guess that means it swings. Guitar solo alert!

“Comin’ and Goin'” sounds somewhat backwards after “Hot and Anxious.” It’s got a more traditional “blues” feel and feels like it belongs in the twenties.

“Radio Rhythm” is the most aggressive and complicated track the band had recorded to date. It must have been ridiculous to play as an ensemble (especially that opening). Brilliant.

“Oh! It Looks Like Rain” features some of those so-dirty-you-can’t-believe-it lyrics that were snuck into jazz, blues and pop songs from the thirties onward. But otherwise, it’s one of the least interesting songs here. It feels like a bid for a hit. There’s another one of those rare Henderson piano solos.

“King Porter Stomp” is a real oldie – it predates jazz. Apparently Goodman cribbed Henderson’s arrangement and turned that into a standard, so that sucks for Henderson. It definitely swings. I’m guessing maybe Goodman’s was better produced or something. This has some classic solos.

“Queer Notions” starts off with another faux-Eastern thing but soon jumps out of that into pretty classic swing. Hawkins’ solo is a classic. As is the one from the solo trumpet (whoever was playing it).

“Can You Take It?” is one I’ve heard before somewhere for sure. That or its language was stolen for another song (or more). It’s pretty classic swing. You can see why some people regard Henderson’s band as the real the kings of swing when you listen to this.

“Happy Feet” has a rather large band for what is mostly a quartet during the verses. It’s an odd one though it gets more interesting when it nears the minute mark.

“Big John’s Special” is as classic a swing tune as it gets – it would almost be cliche if this weren’t 1934.

“Hotter than ‘Ell” also swings but it’s significantly ‘hotter’ (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself – I think that was the intent, though). It’s an excellent example of a band playing fast and sophisticated at the same time.

“Christopher Columbus” feels like a song we should hear in a swing film. It’s a little older than it sounds, apparently. The band playing is more interesting. The solos feel a little dated.

“Grand Terrace Swing” is another class swing song wherein all the conventions are internalized to the point where it’s hard to tell whether the band is moving forward or treading water. (Though the style would be popular for years after this.) On my god, a piano solo. That’s like the fifth one or something.

“Stealin’ Apples” is actually driven by piano, like “Happy Feet”, and we are again left wondering what happened to the band. This is actually kind of forward thinking though, as when Chu Berry (or whoever it is) comes in, the band is still missing. It’s basically dixieland though, not proto-bop. It’s about 2 minutes in before it sounds like big band.

“Jim Town Blues” just jumps right into the big band thing, but sounds more sophisticated (and less obviously “swing”) than some of their other tracks from this period. It sounds like there is a clear desire to move beyond swing to something else. Eldridge (or whoever) is still pretty traditional, but the arrangement does feel progressive.

“Stampede” feels like more of a bid to stay with the trend and have something to dance to. Not my favourite.

“Kitty on Toast” starts with a solo piano introduction that feels utterly out of place. And then the piano is joined by the rhythm and a violin! And it’s a pretty good solo too.  It’s a shame that there isn’t more from this year on this compilation because this track is really out there.

A compilation full of great music that isn’t great just because there are more complete compilations out there.

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